BY RICHARD TINKER
Did you know that we are all “formers?” We all once walked in slavery to sin and death, but when we trusted Christ, that slavery became our former life. I’m going to share with you how I became a “former”—a former Adventist, to be specific. I’m going to share how the book of Galatians revealed that I was serving my flesh instead of serving the Lord.
When I was an Adventist, I thought I knew the gospel. It included Jesus dying for my sins, but it also included a strong emphasis on keeping the Sabbath, on not eating meat, and on perfecting my character to be ready for the very-soon second coming of Jesus. I lived in constant fear and dread that I wouldn’t be good enough to go to heaven when He came. I deeply believed that the government would work with the religious who worshiped on Sunday to try to get me to go to church on the first day of the week, and if I didn’t, the government’s Sunday Law would give them permission to kill me.
I didn’t invent my own fear; here’s what the Adventist prophet Ellen White said:
The Sabbath will be the great test of loyalty…When the final test shall be brought to bear upon men, then the line of distinction will be drawn between those who serve God and those who serve Him not (The Great Controversy, p. 605).
I was a follower of the Galatian heresy
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the confused gospel I had believed for over 40 years was similar to the Galatian heresy—the mixing of old-covenant laws with the Christian gospel. After all that fear had been drilled into my worldview, I was shocked and disoriented to realize I had been wrong. Galatians makes it clear that the law and the gospel do not mix.
The Galatians were gentile believers who were Paul’s spiritual children whom he had taught, and he shows his love for them by his intense rebuke of them and their false teachers. In fact, we see this rebuke right at the beginning of this epistle:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— preached to you, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:6, 8).
Accursed! Paul said that if anyone, even an angel from heaven preached a different gospel, he was to be accursed!
When I make strong statements about my former religion, I am sometimes challenged for being unfair and judgmental. But Paul doesn’t hold back when facing a perversion of the truth—he curses both the false gospel and those who teach it!
Paul even goes on to confront the apostles who were being influenced by the Judaizers who were insisting that the newly-believing gentiles keep the law. In Galatians 2 we find Paul chastising Peter for dishonoring the gospel by refusing to eat with the gentile converts after the Judaizers had come to town.
Peter knew better; he was the apostle who had received the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals and was told by God to eat them before being sent to a gentile’s house (Acts 10:1–23)! Peter knew full well that at the cross, God had removed the barrier of the law that had separated Jews and gentiles!
Like Peter, I, too, was confronted by Paul. I believed that keeping the Ten Commandments—especially the fourth which commanded Sabbath observance—was the final test of my loyalty that qualified me for salvation! But Paul challenged me:
…yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal. 2:16).
My Sabbath-keeping wouldn’t justify me! My being a vegetarian was nothing! My justification is only through faith in Jesus!
Have you ever felt like a fool? If so, you’ll know how I felt as Paul’s words hit home and I discovered that I had been following a false religion masquerading as Christian for over 40 years!
The Galatians also must have felt like fools after reading their letter from Paul. He stripped away their rationalizing and revealed the gospel deception they were believing. Listen to his condemnation of their heresy:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:1–3).
When I read that for the first time, I was dumbfounded. Here Paul equates the works of the law with our flesh. Even more, he equates clinging to the law with being deceived by witchcraft!
Suddenly I realized that my keeping the Sabbath was a work of my flesh and not of the Spirit.
Next Paul reminds the Galatians that the Bible gives us an example of a life of faith without law-keeping—the patriarch Abraham!
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham (Gal. 3:5–7).
I had been taught as a boy that I was a son of Abraham because the Adventist church had replaced Israel. We Adventists were the true children of Abraham. But now, Paul had shattered that belief. I now saw that the true sons live by faith—and that fact changed everything for me.
I never knew if I would make it to heaven
I had felt the burden of law-keeping, of never knowing if I was going to make it to heaven, of wondering whether I had repented of every sin. Now, however, I understood what Paul meant when he explained in verses 13 and 14 that Christ redeemed us from the law’s curse, and that even we gentiles would receive God’s blessings to Abraham when we are in Christ:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:13, 14).
What great news! But then I wondered—why did God even bother to give the law from Mt. Sinai?
Paul, of course, had the answer for that question as well. In Galatians 3:17–23 Paul states that the old covenant started 430 years after Abraham and lasted until Christ. It was added because of sin, and its purpose was to keep Israel in custody until faith was revealed. Furthermore, the law was a guardian that looked after the immature Israelites, and it was intended to lead them to Christ.
The passage rings with this ending:
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Gal. 3:25, 26).
As an Adventist, though, I explained away Paul’s words. I would say that Paul was only removing some of the laws, the ones having to do with sacrifices that foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. My explanation, though, doesn’t hold up when I read this passage in the context of the next chapter. Let’s find out which laws Paul specifically says the Galatians were choosing to follow instead of living by faith:
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (Gal. 4:9–11).
The Galatians were observing the law by keeping days, months, seasons, and years. What Biblical laws were these?
Days correspond to the weekly Seventh-day Sabbath found in the ten commandments. Months are the new-moon Sabbaths that occurred at the first of every lunar month. The seasons are the seasonal festivals, four in the spring, and three in the fall, and years are the Sabbath years that occur every seven years including Jubilee which was celebrated every fiftieth year.
Suddenly I saw the truth; I was like the Galatians—I was keeping a day, a shadow—and I was in slavery.
In fact, as the letter of Galatians nears the end, Paul makes another argument to make it clear that the law covenant is no longer a part of the Christian’s life. He tells the story of Abraham’s two sons as an allegory. He surprisingly compares the slave Hagar to the covenant God gave on Sinai, and he says those who cling to the law are the slave children of Hagar. They are sons of the flesh, and Hagar “corresponds to the present Jerusalem”.
Then he compares Sarah to the promise He gave to Abraham. Her children are not children of flesh nor slaves bound to the law; they are free, and Sarah is compared to “the Jerusalem above; she is our mother”.
Here’s how Paul ends the comparison between the children of the flesh and the children of the promise:
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman (Gal. 4:28–31).
We all must decide which mother we claim, Hagar or Sarah. Are you a son that lives in slavery and persecutes those who are free, or have you been born of the Spirit and given a new life of freedom?
I hope you have done what I’ve done—I hope that you have placed your full faith and trust in the Lord Jesus and have cast out the slave woman and her son. I hope that you have become a child of the free woman!
One more question
There is one more question that I had to answer: if we are children of the free woman, how do we live without the old covenant law? Do we now get to kill, cheat, steal, and commit adultery?
In fact, we had a letter come to our ministry in which the writer claimed that the reason we left Adventism was so that we could eat ham and commit adultery! Nothing could be further from the truth.
Here’s how Paul answers that charge:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law (Gal. 5:13–14, 18).
If we have placed our faith in the Lord Jesus and have been sealed by His Spirit, then we will, by God’s grace, love our neighbors as ourselves. Love—the selfless, truthful kind of love which is possible only in Christ—fulfills all the requirements of the law.
This is the reality of living in the new covenant. We are no longer under the law. We no longer have to observe holy days and food laws that foreshadowed the Messiah and separated Jews from gentiles. Instead, we walk by the Spirit, and when we do we will not carry out the desire of the flesh. Our Lord Jesus has fulfilled the law, and when we believe in Him, His righteousness is credited to our account. We are free indeed. †
Richard Tinker is the president of Life Assurance Ministries and an elder at Redeemer Fellowship, an evangelical church in Loma Linda, California. Richard and his wife Colleen have co-led Former Adventist Fellowship since 1999 and rejoice in the freedom they have found in living by the Spirit.